In Celebration of “A Round-Heeled Woman”

I may or may not be in the habit of doing searches through the archives of my favorite podcasts for words like “sex”, “love”, and “dating” (if those yield nothing I’ll search for “pets” or “cooking”). Whatever I find has got to be safe for work (or, at least, not incriminating enough that if someone walked up behind me while I was listening to it on my computer and saw the website open they’d be flustered) and thoughtfully done. So I was excited to find, in the archives of To the Best of Our Knowledge (an NPR show where they interview authors), an episode entitled Cultures of Desire.

One of the subjects of the show was Jane Juska, author of the 2003 book A Round-Heeled Woman: My Late-Life Adventures in Sex and Romance. The titillating lead-in suggested that Juska was on a mission to sleep with as many men as possible, but her New York Times Book Review personal ad said it better: “Before I turn 67—next March— I would like to have a lot of sex with a man I like.”

Juska, a retired high school English teacher, sounded like a smart, genuine, irreverent woman in the interview. Fortunately my fabulous local library had a copy and in a few days I had my hands on the book.

Part of what I liked about the book was the vicarious adventure it provided; Juska stuck her neck out in a way I hadn’t imagined before, and in doing so she blazed a trail, opening up new horizons in my mind about what is possible for someone in her situation.

On one level what she was proposing was highly ordinary; one-on-one sex vanilla sex is hardly noteworthy. But to have the nerve to publicly declare her desire for sex as a woman, much less an older woman, and to express desire for sex ala carte (she wasn’t looking for a long term relationship) struck me as wonderfully brave. She never dumbed herself down, put up a facade, or bothered smoothing the edges of her whip-smart and occasionally-acerbic personality. She is who she is, like her or leave her, and she wanted sex with a lusty equal.

The journey began with a distressing revelation. Juska, who had been divorced for many years, realized that she could very easily live the rest of her life in undesired celibacy; in fact, if she didn’t make a change, that would pretty much be the default track her life would continue along. She hadn’t had a wild experimental phase to reminisce about; in fact, despite being a big fan of sex, she hadn’t had much of note. And damned if she was going to spend her senior years kicking herself for not going after it.

This was before the boom of internet dating, but Juska’s ad nevertheless brought in more than 60 responses. After filtering through the clear no-gos (from men who were cheating on spouses, lewd, or ranting) and the maybes, Juska began corresponding with some of the enticing yeses. Over the course of the next few months, she met with several of the would-be paramours across the country, and the reader gets to come along for the adventure.

What struck me was Juska’s humanness, and how swiftly interactions involving sex (or the potential for sex) can get messy and confusing, despite our best intentions to keep them simple and straightforward. Part of seeking a “man she likes” (instead of hooking up with strangers) is getting to know her would-be partners, and thereby making herself vulnerable, opening herself up to well-meaning but flawed and not-always-compatible prospective partners.

She falls in love with some of them; sometimes they reciprocate, other times, not so much, or they do but it doesn’t last. She gets rejected in a variety of painful and unpredictable ways, and has to find ways to reconcile herself with her ever-shifting reality and keep moving forward.

Sometimes the obstacles are related to advancing age; the men have health problems, are looking for more of a last hurrah than an ongoing engagement, or have semi-platonic longtime female companions who they are uncomfortably sneaking around on. But often the awkwardness stems from universal problems; lack of communication,  irksome personal problems,  garden-variety incompatibility that can’t be surmounted.

I could empathize with Juska’s struggle throughout; everyone who has risked their heart and body for sex and connection experiences some rejection, and even though you know it’s par for the course, it still feels like a shock. It was fun to get a vicarious cathartic thrill when Juska’s high school teacher training would come through and she’d lay down the law with an outrageously-behaving date. Like the one who pretended to have a severe allergic reaction at the restaurant as a joke, terrifying the waiter and his fellow diners- Juska ordered him to leave a large tip and never went out with him again.

And then there’s the sex. Juska does end up having a generous amount of it, and she relishes it just as much as one would hope. I found her forthrightness, and lusty appetite, so refreshing and hot. She knows what she likes, and her partners expand her horizons. When her adventure is going well, it goes really well- she has fantastic sex, meets intellectual counterparts who thrill her with their depth and sophistication, gallivants around New York City and connects with her partners on many deep and fascinating levels. Plus it was very heartening to see how her lovers encouraged her in her quest for satisfaction with multiple partners.

The book ends hearteningly, and in the interview, Juska revealed a happy ending to her story; some of the lovers are still regular partners and she was (as of 2003) having a ball. A play was made from the story, too. So hats off to you, Ms. Juska. Through your little book you have made the world a little broader, more open, a little safer and more promising, for any reader who’s ever been dreamed about declaring what they want, and singing out loud with their sexuality.

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